NORMAN — Kent and Mary Thomas bought a little produce stand on Robinson Street, west of Porter Avenue in 1962. On the nearby corner were two gas stations, Norman Park Lodge, a liquor store and Red’s Tavern.
For eight years, while they built the business, they also made their home in the store which was once Northside Drive-In. “This was our kitchen and he made a bathroom and we had our bedroom in the back,” Mary Thomas remembers.
Kent learned the grocery business at Humpty Dumpty so they were comfortable expanding beyond the fruit and produce displayed out front along the two-lane Robinson Street. Mary knew how to buy in small quantities. For a while, they were the only employees, often opening up late for after-hours customers.
“Porter looked nothing like it does today,” she said. “All those old buildings are gone. The hospital wasn’t that far up there. Court’s Grill is gone. Everything’s gone.”
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Some time this summer, the Northside Market will also be gone. Kent died in 1981 and Mary and her daughter Sherry have operated the store, albeit minus the groceries since then. Those went away years ago when the health department wanted her to remodel the popular meat counter and make other accommodations.
Robinson was widened. Twice. Slowly, their parking disappeared in the name of progress. She decided to phase out the groceries and stick to antiques and collectibles. The beer cooler now is home to coffee mugs, signs and collectibles. A watermelon cooler next door is filled with similar items.
Northside was a popular quick stop for my family. Their candy shelf was legendary, with the ever-popular Chick-o-sticks, Big Hunk candy bars and candy cigarettes. Our standing order for the weekend was a pound of bologna sliced thin enough to read the newspaper through, a loaf of bread and a quart of cold Falstaff for mom and dad. Kent would wave to the parents to make sure the beer sale was authorized.
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“Yak, yak, yak. He talked to everyone. He didn’t know any of their names but he had a name for everyone. There was the Frito Man. There was the Beer Man. There was the bread man. We sold a lot of beer here and a lot of milk,” Mary recalls. “We had a lot of fun here.”
When they did away with groceries and produce, the customer mix changed. No longer did families come in for milk, bread, melons and beer. Nowadays, it’s antique collectors looking for unique items and bargains.
“It changed everything,” Mary said. “It just wasn’t the same.”
Some of those collectors will be back at month’s end for an auction. Mary and her daughter are setting up displays of items for sale. The property and some surrounding ones purchased over the years will stay with the family.
“That is unless someone offers me a million bucks for it,” she laughs. “Maybe they will.”